Archive for July, 2015

The 2015 Man Booker Prize Longlist

The longlist for the 2015 Man Booker Prize was revealed at noon today.
The thirteen books in contention for the £50,000 prize are:

Bill Clegg – Did You Ever Have a Family (Jonathan Cape)
Anne Enright – The Green Road (Jonathan Cape)
Marlon James – A Brief History of Seven Killings (Oneworld Publications)
Laila Lalami – The Moor’s Account (Periscope, Garnet Publishing)
Tom McCarthy – Satin Island (Jonathan Cape)
Chigozie Obioma – The Fishermen (ONE, Pushkin Press)
Andrew O’Hagan – The Illuminations (Faber & Faber)
Marilynne Robinson – Lila (Virago)
Anuradha Roy – Sleeping on Jupiter (MacLehose Press, Quercus)
Sunjeev Sahota – The Year of the Runaways (Picador)
Anna Smaill – The Chimes (Sceptre)
Anne Tyler – A Spool of Blue Thread (Chatto & Windus)
Hanya Yanagihara – A Little Life (Picador)

Back in the eighties, when I first had a home computer, I decided it would be worth trying to win the pools by using it to predict the football results. Oh, the optimism of youth. I wrote a program to calculate the most likely score draws from a variety of data: previous results, current form, newspaper tipsters etc. Then ran it for several weeks, tweaking the weightings given to the various factors until it became quite good at predicting…the predictable draws – which was usually about half of them. Obviously it was completely hopeless at predicting the unexpected. Who can foresee rain falling from a clear blue sky? Indeed, the UK Met Office seems incapable of predicting rain full stop.

Why am I telling you this? Is it because I hope that one of the judges will be reading and might suggest to the Chancellor of the Exchequer that he could save taxpayers some money by privatising our hopeless Met Office? (Want to know what the weather is like? Look out the window! As Jeremy Paxman once told Newsnight viewers.) No. It’s just to point out the surprisingly similar degree of unpredictability between twenty-two grown adults kicking a ball around and half-a-dozen others judging literary fiction. Bill Who? Marlon James?!

Marlon James is the first Jamaican-born author to be longlisted for the prize, and Laila Lalami the first from Morocco – although both now reside in the USA; while Bill Clegg is “an American literary agent known for his ruthless negotiating” according to The Guardian. I’m not sure whether they are trying to imply anything by that.

There will be a number of reactions to this longlist. Someone somewhere will mishear and think: Nick Clegg up for the Booker Prize? I didn’t know manifestoes were eligible? Many will be pleased to see that women are in the majority, some will decry the fact that Americans outnumber Brits in only the second year they have been eligible. Others will be off to the bookies to put a bet on Hanya Yanagihara. A Little Life? Big favourite.

The list of those “snubbed” this year includes: Harper Lee (told you so), Salman Rushdie (twenty years since he was last shortlisted), Kate Atkinson (who has still, amazingly, never once pinged the Booker radar), Margaret Atwood, Jonathan Franzen and Kazuo Ishiguro – so you can cross them off your posh bingo cards. I decided in advance that if Quicksand by Steve Toltz was not on their list, then either the judges are on the wrong wavelength, or I am. Admittedly I have only read the first chapter so far – but, sheesh, it’s already streets ahead of a couple on the list that I have read. To be fair, the judges have read 156 books and the longlist “could have been twice as long” according to Michael Wood, this year’s chair of the judging panel.

The shortlist will be announced on September 15th, and the winner on October 13th.



Here’s something for those of you who like trivia: nine of the last eleven Man Booker winners had titles beginning with the definite article, and the other two were both by Hilary Mantel.


July 29, 2015 at 4:02 pm 1 comment


Since I last updated this blog, two pillars of the Booker Prize have passed away. Martyn Goff, administrator of the prize from 1972-2006, died in March, aged 91. Then a couple of weeks later, his successor, Ion Trewin, succumbed to cancer, aged 71. Trewin had been the youngest chair of a Booker jury in 1974, and was the editor of Thomas Keneally’s Schindler’s Ark which won the prize in 1982.

The last of Ion Trewin’s many contributions to the literary world was to write an obituary of his predecessor, from which I learned that Goff had written nine novels in the 1950’s and 60’s, several with explicitly gay themes. This at a time when (male) homosexuality was still a crime. The Plaster Fabric (1957) and The Youngest Director (1961) in particular were credited with helping to gain public support for a reform of the law. (So there are another couple of additions to my growing list of pioneering gay novels which ought to be reissued – preferably as part of a set of LGBT Classics. Along with works by authors such as Ronald Firbank, Stephen Spender, Francis King, Paul Bailey, etc. Are you listening Penguin? Vintage? Bright pink covers optional.)

Goff expertly kept the Booker prize in the headlines with strategic leaks (or “tactical indiscretions” as Nicholas Clee puts it.) A similar attribute was required of his successor. When Trewin was being interviewed for the position of literary director, Julia Neuberger, one of the trustees of the Booker Prize Foundation, asked him whether he was devious. He said yes, and got the job.

Everyone who follows the Booker Prize owes the pair of them much respect and many thanks for the work they did in overseeing and promoting the prize for so long. My commiserations to their families and friends. Good luck to Gaby Wood, head of books at The Daily Telegraph, and a Man Booker judge in 2011, who will take over as Literary Director from October.

RIP Martyn Goff (1923–2015) and Ion Trewin (1943–2015)


In May, the 2015 Man Booker International Prize was awarded to the Hungarian author László Krasznahorkai – whose first, and most acclaimed, novel Satantango, originally published in Hungary in 1985, was belatedly translated into English in 2012. The judges lauded his “extraordinary sentences, […] sentences of incredible length that go to incredible lengths, […] epic sentences that, like a lint roll, pick up all sorts of odd and unexpected things…”  Which reminds me of the longest sentence I ever read. It occurred early in Tim Parks’ Europa, shortlisted in 1997. If I remember correctly it went on for several pages and innumerable subclauses. It was also the last sentence by Tim Parks I ever read.

Krasznahorkai will be the last author to win the Man Booker International Prize for a body of work, as the prize has now merged with The Independent Foreign Fiction Prize and becomes an annual award for a single book, with a £50,000 prize split evenly between the author and the translator. The 2016 longlist will be announced in March, the shortlist in April and the winner in May. Boyd Tonkin of The Independent will chair the judges. For speculation as to what may be in the running, there is, already, a list on goodreads.


But what of the main event, the 2015 Man Booker Prize? What might we see on this year’s longlist next Wednesday?

Well it is very easy to imagine Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant and The Wolf Border by Sarah Hall on a Booker Prize list, long or short. Very, very easy.

And be warned: there could be monsters. 600, 700, 800 page monsters. Death and Mr Pickwick by Stephen Jarvis (816pp), for example. “As a former Man Booker judge,” Lucasta Miller said in her review, “I will eat my hat if it doesn’t make this year’s list.” And we all know how well pledging to eat a hat turns out. Though it might be easier to eat a hat than to try and digest some of the great (i.e. fat) American novels that may have dropped into the judges laps. The Familiar, Volume 1: One Rainy Day in May by Mark Z. Danielewski (880pp) and The Dying Grass by William Vollmann (1376pp) might be big outsiders, but A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara (720 pp) and City on Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg (944 pp) have both received massive praise and, if submitted, could be hard to ignore. As will Flood of Fire by Amitav Ghosh and Arcadia by Iain Pears, which both top 600 pages. Thank goodness A Suitable Girl still isn’t due until next year. (It’s always next year).

Talking of girls, erm, I mean women, Nicola Griffith recently complained that most prize-winning fiction is written by men, about men. Well this year’s judges ought to be able to find a few novels that pass the old Bechdel Test as there are a lot of strong female contenders around – including previous winners Margaret Atwood, Pat Barker and Anne Enright, as well as newly eligible Americans Toni Morrison, Anne Tyler and – oh, have you heard? – Harper Lee has a new book out. Bookmakers William Hill are offering odds of 33-1 against Go Set A Watchman winning – but, as with The Goldfinch last year, I think it unlikely to have been entered. Why use one of your limited number of submissions on a book everyone is going to read anyway?  Expect some ‘Harper Lee Snubbed’ headlines after the longlist announcement.

Of course, trying to guess which books will have been submitted is surrenderously daunting – especially as the number of books publishers can enter is so complicated under the new rules. (I suspect the formula Z(u,w)=Z0(w)[1-exp{-b(w)u}] may be involved somewhere.) All the more reason why the list of titles entered for the prize should not be kept secret. Otherwise how can we – and by ‘we’ I mean Nicola Griffith, because I’m a bloke so I can’t be bothered – how can we know whether it is the fault of the judges, or whether publishers are just not submitting many books by, or about, women?


Anyway I’m sure you must be dying to know what would I like to see on the longlist next week – if only to point out that most of them are books by men, about men.

There is The Field of the Cloth of Gold by Magnus Mills for starters. He is a unique literary talent who should be more widely-read and prized. And I agree with Jackie at FarmLaneBooks about I Am Radar by Reif Larsen, although I haven’t read it yet. (It seems that the library copy I ordered is not being bought after all – something a longlisting would change, and a 40% budget cut would completely knacker.) I’m also looking forward to tackling Quicksand – Steve Toltz’s first novel since being shortlisted for A Fraction of the Whole in 2008.

I have just read The Illuminations by Andrew O’Hagan, and it would be not be out of place on the longlist, and I only recently finished Jonathan Buckley’s last novel Nostalgia, in all its vivid historical detail, after reading it on-and-off for you-would-not-believe how long. Just you try and stop me from diving into The River is the River.

Also high on my already-far-too-big-for-one-lifetime-to-be-read-list are: Acts of the Assassins by Richard Beard, Glass by Alex Christofi, Don’t Let Him Know by Sandip Roy and The Year of the Runaways by Sunjeev Sahota.

Some books almost deserve longlisting for their titles alone: Patrick de Witt’s new novel “Undermajordomo Minor“, for example (his first since being shortlisted for The Sisters Brothers in 2011). Then there’s Grandmother Divided by Monkey Equals Outer Space” by Nora Chassler; and Nell Leyshon’s “Memoirs of a Dipper: in which … you get to learn shitloads about me and I learn fuck all about you – it’s a memoir, it ain’t a youmoir“.


Finally, The Guardian’s Not-the-Booker Prize is on the prowl again. Think of it as the January Sale of the literary scene. All scrabbling elbows and cuffs. Predicting what will win that scrummage is literally a mug’s game. But if that mug doesn’t go to The Making of Zombie Wars by Aleksandar Hemon I will eat my dinner.

July 23, 2015 at 11:50 am Leave a comment


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